Packaged macaroni and cheese is the first meal she was allowed to cook. It was an after-school snack when she got home before her parents did. She wonders sometimes that her parents let her come home to an empty house, but it was a simpler time back then, and she was a very smart kid. Boil and drain the noodles, add a lump of butter and some milk, stir in the packet of bright-orange powder, stir and enjoy. A pot of boiling water might be risky, but at least there are no sharp knives involved, and there’s no possibility of undercooking meat. As after-school snacks go, it’s probably better than a bowl of ice cream or an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She knows it’s not gourmet cuisine, but it is comforting and friendly and nothing in the world is going to change her mind on that subject. Well, maybe a recall of packaged macaroni-and-cheese. Even without a recall because they accidentally added metal shavings, there’s a lot of stuff in that orange powder that you wouldn’t put in if you were making it from scratch. All you need, really, is macaroni. And cheese. We joke about the “extras” I try to put in M&C, like a pile of sautéed kale or a handful of pan-roasted tomatoes, but even I recognize that they are accompaniments rather than ingredients. We both laughed out loud when I saw this recipe: Fundamentalist Macaroni and Cheese The humor of The Awl’s essay, from which this is adapted, is lost in this simplification. Read the original for fun. Boil 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni until it is not quite al dente. Grate a pound of cheddar cheese–half mild, half sharp. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot and rub with butter. Add the macaroni back into the pot, then stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Add about 1/2 cup milk. Bake at 350F until top is slightly brown and crunchy, probably about 40 minutes. That’s it. I made a batch. And it was really quite good. Not at all elaborate, not complicated, but very good. The cheese was neither too mild nor too sharp; the noodles were nicely sturdy. I thought it could use some kale, but that’s another story. She got home and was thrilled to see what I’d done, but since I’d also made tomato soup–it was a batch-cooking Sunday night–she opted for a grilled cheese sandwich with the soup for her supper. Turns out it doesn’t reheat all that well, though. The cheese separates a little in the microwave. Maybe it would be better if it were reheated in a pan on the stovetop, or maybe at a lower power level. Or maybe this is a recipe we use when we don’t want leftovers. My grandmother lived with my parents and me, so I hardly ever came home to an empty house. I don’t remember the first meal I was allowed to cook. It was probably something like Spaghetti-o’s, which are arguably no healthier than the Blue Box. Maybe I just had a cookie. Or three.
It had been a whirlwind week, followed by a busy weekend leading into another week that’ll be more of the same. Major events are kicking up in her organization, and rehearsals and performances fill my evenings. Dinners together will be the exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to get focused on what has to be done at work and then discover a load of clothes put in the washer on Tuesday hasn’t been moved to the dryer until Friday. Or that we’ve driven past the market while holding the shopping list.
We remembered lunch, though. She had it nearly ready by the time I got home. All that was left was to grate the cheese I’d just brought–after I remembered where I was going and circled back for it. Pasta was bubbling. Cream simmered in a saucepan, flecked with perky strands of lemon zest and dark green rosemary. I squeezed the lemons for her before she realized that the recipe called for zest but not juice. That’s okay; I’ll make lemon soda sometime soon. She stirred in the cheese, steamed some asparagus to add, and brought everything together. The sauce was beautifully balanced between tart citrus, rich cream, and salty-sharp parmesan. A sprinkle of cayenne and a few grinds of black pepper contributed a little warmth, and the asparagus brought its unique earthiness. Nothing overwhelmed another–which is good, since we were both a little overwhelmed by life.
The recipe she was following didn’t include the asparagus, but I’m glad we did. Vegetables are always welcome. I’m sure we’ll try this again someday, perhaps with a little less cream and many more vegetables, as a pasta primavera. It’s time for that sort of thing, even if the thermometer doesn’t quite agree and there’s still snow on the ground. It might even be pleasant enough to linger over lunch on the deck. Not today, though, but that’s just as well; we had only enough time to clean up after lunch before going our separate ways for evening events.
The time it takes to make a simple meal is always well-spent, and most certainly healthier than speaking into an intercom and having someone hand a sack of burgers to us through a window. Even when the meal is a bowl of pasta and cheese.
“Could I have a donut and a hard-boiled egg for breakfast?” she asked.
The CSA share included a dozen eggs every week, and with only two of us in the house, we always had eggs around; we kept a half-dozen hard boiled for easy breakfasts. But friends have taken over the CSA share, and our egg supply gradually diminished. I picked up a dozen after rehearsal.
I knew I forgot to do something when I got home: there were no hard-boiled eggs. There was, however, just about enough time. I put four eggs in a pan of water along with her magical egg timer, and set it to boil. The eggs were cooked, but, at her departure time, too hot to carry. I offered a pig-in-a-blanket left over from race-morning brunch, some grapes, and the requested donut. From her reaction, that was an even better choice.
Having scooped out the eggs and timer, I had a pot of just-off-the-boil water. I was just about to pour it down the drain when I remembered the last of a container of bolognese sauce in the fridge. I liked the idea of conserving resources by re-using the hot water. I put the pot back on the still-warm-but-turned-off stove, salted the water, and poured in some dry pasta. I lidded the pot, grabbed my keys, and the took the commuter to meet her train. Upon returning from the station, I found a pot of perfectly al dente pasta.
A friend of ours posted to Facebook recently that her son was sulking because he couldn’t have macaroni and cheese for breakfast. I presume the issue was that there was no macaroni and cheese in the house, rather than some sort of parental concern that it would be an inappropriate breakfast food. I resisted the temptation to heat the sauce and have penne bolognese for breakfast, but only because I would have felt the need to tease our friend about her son’s breakfast request.
Of course, maybe I just did.
I’d had an early-evening meeting, and got home with about an hour before her train arrived. She met a friend for drinks and snacks that turned into dinner. I heated some pasta and her rustic tomato sauce, adding a big handful of broccoli florets and a little mozzarella cheese and maybe a teaspoon of diced pepperoni. While the microwave worked its magic, I fed the cats and packed breakfast and lunch for Tuesday. I ate dinner at the table with a proper napkin, good posture, and an interesting book I bought months ago thinking it might possibly become a musical. It might, or might not, but I’m enjoying it either way. I haven’t been reading as much as I’d like, so it was nice to spend time with a story on paper. A glass of wine would have been nice with the pasta, but not after a long day–and not before driving to the station to meet her train.
A bowl of pasta and a book. Laundry folding and conversation about our days. Domestic. Tranquility.
Sometimes we cook together, start to finish. Sometimes one of us is on dinner duty while the other handles other chores, or isn’t even home yet. Or it’s some combination of the two.
Knowing there would be tomatoes in this week’s CSA distribution, and realizing we still had a pile of tomatoes from last week’s share, we decided on a simple sauce to serve with pasta. While she was at work on Tuesday, I chopped the tomatoes, diced an onion, and baked some bacon. Upon her return, she sautéed the onion, added tomatoes and capers, and cooked them until the tomatoes were soft and their juices reduced; also, she made a batch of penne. Everything was cooled and tucked away for Wednesday dinner.
We met at the terminal for a companionable train ride home in the Quiet Car; I worked on lyrics for a new project, she read an Agatha Christie novel. Home at the Country House, we divided labor: she cleared the laundry closet for the painter who’ll arrive this morning; I fixed dinner. I heated the sauce, gave the pasta a hot-water dunk to warm and separate, snipped some basil, crumbled a slice of bacon, sprinkled some cheese, added a little salt and pepper, and bowled it up, along with a couple ears of late-summer corn. She finished the closet in time to prepare croutons (small pieces of bread we use to butter ears of corn), and we settled down to enjoy the result.
It isn’t just cooking; maybe she’ll sort and start a load of laundry, and I’ll switch it to the dryer and fold it, or the other way around. Dishes are washed and dried; the dishwasher is loaded and emptied; the cats get fed and the litter box scooped. We don’t have “assigned” chores, but everything gets done.
Sharing. Nothing fancy. But simple. And wonderful. Like a bowl of pasta and an ear of corn.
Pasta and corn. Lots of basil, in place of a salad. I forgot the mozzarella cheese we’d planned to cube into this dish, but that means the leftovers will be different!
The late afternoon stretched before me like a blank sheet of staff paper. But one little technological glitch after another kept me my progress slow; between 4 and 6 I got maybe 15 minutes of work done. So when she pinged to say which train she was on, I realized my plan to have dinner ready upon her arrival would need revising.
The idea was chicken with mushrooms over farfalle pasta, but there would have to be more to it than that. I diced an onion and sautéed it with some garlic to get the party started. A pot of water was salted and set to boil. I looked up to see a can of artichoke hearts on a cupboard shelf; it was easy to see, since all the cupboard doors have been removed for refinishing. I drained the artichokes, filleted the chicken, heard the water boiling, and tossed the pasta in. And saw the clock: it was time to leave to meet her train. I took the pasta pot and the sauté pan off the heat, put the chicken back in the fridge, grabbed my keys and ran.
We got home, and the pasta was perfect. Who needs 10 minutes of boiling when you’ve got carryover heat to take care of business?
The convergence of sautéing chicken, answering a house painter’s phone call, and assisting with first aid for a neighbor who’d fallen while running nearly derailed the whole thing, but not quite.
Dinner was splendid. And, for us, served early.
Timing is Almost Everything. (Good ingredients help, too.)
She and her dad left early for New York and a day of putting the City House back the way she had found it: white walls, empty rooms, and broom-clean floors. I left for a pre-work run, training for a 20K race next weekend. None of us had quite the day we expected.
They couldn’t find parking. They needed more paint. The air conditioner wouldn’t come off its mounting. The landlord didn’t show up to collect the keys. There was a 75-minute wait to return equipment to the cable company. One thing after another.
The complications of my day were fewer: I just got stung by a bee. On the roof of my mouth. I mean, really. Who gets stung on the roof of the mouth? Pained but with no other symptoms, I made an appointment to see the doctor, finished my run, and went to the office. My doctor, a fellow runner, said I’d done the right thing; he prescribed ibuprofen, ice cubes, and a Benadryl at bedtime.
By the end of the day, nobody felt like cooking. She likes the barbecue place not far from home, so I passed around the laptop–the 21st century version of a binder full of menus. Her dad and I chose the pulled pork. “Can I do something completely not authentic?” she asked. Reminded that she is an adult and fully capable of making her own choices, she opted for the penne pasta with vodka sauce and grilled chicken. And a cheese quesadilla.
The girl ordered Italian and Mexican food. From the barbecue place.
The hostess was terribly sorry that she couldn’t deliver the collard greens I’d hoped for as a side dish. I was only sorry I couldn’t place her accent. Australian? South African? Second-year theatre student practicing her dialect-class homework?
The pulled pork was smoky and citrusy. The cornbread was moist and full of actual corn. The cole slaw wasn’t as good as the Colonel’s (or even the reverse-engineered version I make when there’s time), but it was fine. And, apparently, the penne and quesadilla were good, too. I’d ask, but she’s asleep on the couch.